The Feeling of the Philosopher

I started to climb because I wanted to see what it was like in the clouds. I reached them long ago, but I kept going. Every step showed more ahead and more behind. How could I stop?

When I came to the top, the clouds broke. Only the stars showed down. I lay on my back and stared at them. They seemed to stare back. I was the center of an hour glass; the universe opened wide above me, the mountain grew out below me. Everything narrowed here and poured through me, earth to sky and sky to earth.

I was scared; it was like the fear of heights, but in two directions. If I moved, I could easily slide down and crash so far below. But even worse was the possibility that I might fall into the sky, fall forever, with nothing to catch me.


The Feeling of the Philosopher

Every important question is like a steep mountain. Smaller questions help with bigger questions, like rocks scattered up the cliffside. To climb the mountain, we have to pick our way up the stepping stones, concentrating on one at a time. Once we’ve got a grip on the first question, for a moment, we seem to have reached the top, and we glory in the achievement. But for the really important questions, there’s always a next stone.

It’s hard work, and fear waits for you to look around and realize where you are. What makes you climb in the first place?

Philosophy begins in wonder

In Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus, Socrates famously said, “Philosophy begins in wonder.” Though it is a side-note, praise for his companion in conversation, it has sparked a lot of controversy; where your philosophy begins and ends can change your entire outlook on life.

There are two ways we commonly use the word “wonder”. First, as a desire, an itch to know something more. Second, as a feeling of awe mixed with surprise. Which of these did Socrates mean when he spoke of wonder as the beginning of philosophy?


The first way we use the word “wonder” is as a desire, an appetite. “I wonder how rainbows work.” It’s a desire for knowledge of a particular thing. Used in this way, “wonder” is synonymous with “curiosity”. The statement that “philosophy begins in wonder” means that a hunger for knowledge makes you search for answers.

Any kind of desire is pain, because desire means you lack something that you should have if you are to be complete. In the case of curiosity, you don’t have knowledge. When you gain the particular knowledge you were missing, you scratch the itch, and you are brought into your natural, whole state. You no longer feel the pain.

Curiosity is certainly part of the beginning of philosophy. If we have no desire for knowledge of ourselves or our world, we will never undertake the hard work of climbing the mountains of questions that face us. Curiosity causes us to ask the all-important “Why?”

Because curiosity is a pain, however, once we are caught in its clutches, we try to be rid of it as soon as possible. Once we have gained the knowledge we lacked, the curiosity is gone, just as hunger doesn’t exist once you’ve had food. The pain ceases. (Thank you, Google!) Curiosity ends in philosophy.

While it would encourage a search for truth, then, this sense of wonder cannot be the only one Socrates was pointing to. He did not mean that philosophy is the satisfaction of wonder, as though wonder were something to avoid, the way we avoid pain. He was praising Theaetetus for his wonder, not pitying him. So let us look to our second sense of wonder.

Wonder is the feeling…

The second possible sense of wonder is a feeling, an emotion. We tend to use “wonder” this way when we are speaking of wonderful things. Like most emotions, it is not strictly efficient; it doesn’t help you get things done in a timely manner. It requires leisure, a break from the world. You must consider the wonderful things around you. Stop and smell the roses!

This feeling is surprise mixed with admiration. The truest form of wonder is when we are faced with something so good, true, or beautiful that—for a moment at least—it is beyond our comprehension; we can only contain an intuition of it. We allow the wonderful thing to flit around in our minds, showing off its beauty, truth, and goodness. We can’t form words, but the object astonishes and delights us, fills us with wonder. Wonder is a glorious participation in that transcendence.

I think Socrates was speaking more of this latter sense of wonder. The context of his statement that “Philosophy begins in wonder” supports this. Just before, he says, “Wonder is the feeling of the philosopher.” This shows he doesn’t believe wonder is something to avoid; if wonder ends when philosophy begins, you stop being a philosopher—one who feels wonder—as soon as you begin philosophizing… Which is ridiculous.

Rather, the more philosophy allows you to pursue the “truth” aspect of the wonder, the more you understand how close that truth is to goodness and beauty. For the philosopher, wonder leads to philosophy, which leads to a greater sense of wonder. Wonder is the beginning, the end, and the continuous feeling of the philosopher.


This idea might be disappointing to some. What if you really don’t like wonder? What if you want it to end when philosophy begins? What a comfort! As soon as philosophy gives all the answers, there will be nothing to wonder about any more! Then wonder will leave us alone!

I would suggest there is a difficult question to ask about this feeling. What is behind this animosity? If wonder is—as I’ve suggested—a participation in transcendence, what is there to dislike?

A lot. Wonder is frightening. Fear stops us from enjoying it.

The problem with this second, intuitive sense of wonder is its uncertainty. We all want certainty; it’s so grounded, so stable. We don’t like the messiness that wonder entails. It shows us that we’re not in control. Wonder requires a surrender, an admission that there is something beyond us, something above the material existence that can so easily become our all.

Why can’t we stick with the first type of wonder? If we only wonder about small things, we can have certainty. For example, if you desire to know more about rainbows, philosophy points to science, who hands you the answer, wrapped in a neat little bow. As Cole says in The Sixth Sense, “They don’t have meetings about rainbows.” Isn’t that lovely?


Yes. But it’s not wonderful.

If, on the other hand, wonder is a feeling derived from an intuition, it is what begins true philosophical musings. It is terrifying! It’s a lot like standing at the top of a mountain and realizing, so close to the sky, how very small you are. Standing up so high, with the sky right there, pressing against you. Makes you want to climb down, doesn’t it?

The truths philosophy will give you will change your life, will change the world around you. You will sometimes come to the conclusion that you can’t come to a conclusion. You will discover things about the world that are frightening and uncomfortable. You will discover things about yourself that you wish were otherwise. But knowing is better than not knowing.

And don’t be afraid. If you’re looking for what’s true, you’ll also find what’s good. And that can never be bad.

16 thoughts on “The Feeling of the Philosopher

  1. Beautifully put!

    Does Aristotle feel differently? “Yet the acquisition of it must in a sense end in something which is the opposite of our original inquiries. For all men begin, as we said, by wondering that things are as they are, as they do about self-moving marionettes, or about the solstices or the incommensurability of the diagonal of a square with the side; for it seems wonderful to all who have not yet seen the reason, that there is a thing which cannot be measured even by the smallest unit. But we must end in the contrary and, according to the proverb, the better state, as is the case in these instances too when men learn the cause; for there is nothing which would surprise a geometer so much as if the diagonal turned out to be commensurable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s from the end of Metaphysics, Book 1, Part 2. (Don’t you love the internet? Thank you, Google! I was curious about where that quote was from, typed in “Aristotle self-moving marionettes”, and BANG! My curiosity-pain was satisfied! It no longer exists.)

      So, he’s saying people start out by wondering at the fact that things are the way they are, for example how the diagonal of the square is incommensurate with the sides. But as soon as you understand the reason, you would be “surprised” if the thing turned out to be otherwise. And that this second state–knowing the cause–is the opposite of the first–the state of wonder.

      Is he thinking surprise and wonder are the same thing? As in, people are surprised, perhaps even disbelieving, when you say that the diagonal is incommensurate with the sides? If so, I would think he’s talking about the first kind of wonder, desire to know how a thing is so.

      That’s confirmed a little above your text, where he says:

      “… therefore since they philosophized in order to escape from ignorance, evidently they were pursuing science in order to know, and not for any utilitarian end.”

      If I’m right in my interpretation of both of these guys, I would say that, while Aristotle emphasized the “curiosity” sense of wonder, Socrates emphasized the “feeling” sense. And I think the differences in their philosophy, and their ways of pursuing it, bear out what I said in my opening section, “where your philosophy begins and ends can change your entire outlook on life.”

      What would I say? Taking the example above, and going off of my own mind-blowing experience of discovering the consequences of the Pythagorean theorem (that is, really understanding what incommensurate means), I would side with Socrates. I learned in high school that the diagonal of a square is often represented by a square root. In college, we went through Euclid, and I began to discover the implications: There is NO UNIT that measures both the sides and the diagonal of a square.

      Where do the two senses of wonder come into this journey to philosophy? The first one, curiosity–the desire, as Aristotle puts it, to escape from ignorance–came into play early on; I found something strange, something I didn’t understand, and I wanted to dig deeper. The second, the feeling or intuition, came in at the conclusion. Doesn’t it blow your mind, that that fact can be TRUE? No matter how small the unit you take, no matter how you shrink it or cut it, no matter how you “blow up” the square, that unit cannot measure both lines. The “why” to that statement already threatens to leap the sciences, from mathematics to philosophy.

      Which of these two “wonders” is the cause of philosophy? Both. But which is the principle cause, that without which philosophy would not come to be? I would tend, with Socrates, to say the second.


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  3. I received this comment via Facebook, and it was good, so I thought I’d make a note of it here:

    Well, the subject is welcome, for starters. Any time someone draws attention to the Theaetetus, we should respond softly. Having said that, I find it odd tthat the author makes a point of emphasizing this odd statement: “The second possible sense of wonder is a feeling, an emotion. We tend to use “wonder” this way when we are speaking of wonderful things.” This describes ‘awe’ for sure and translating the word ‘pathos’ cleanly isn’t simple, but feeling seems to deemphasize wonder as an activity of reason.


    • My reply:

      Thanks for reading! I would like to start by saying that I have woefully neglected Platonic dialogues. My standard is just high enough that I actually find the source of the quotes that fly around the internet and read the context, though not the whole dialogue. Hopefully I’ll work up to more eventually. Also, the majority of my Greek was learned by sounding out the parentheticals in Professor Kalkavage’s music manual. 🙂

      Comparing wonder to awe was interesting, but I think they’re both feelings. Awe has more reverence–and even fear–involved, where wonder is more surprise and interest.

      Awe seems more passive; you let the reverence wash over you as you look at the awful thing. It doesn’t seem to imply any type of awakening to action, except perhaps a bowing to something so much higher than yourself that it inspires proper fear in you.

      Wonder, on the other hand, seems more active; to me, it connotes an awakening of your power of reason, as though you want to take the thing into your hands so you can see it from all sides. There is more kinship with a wonderful thing than with an awful thing, but less reverence.

      I’m glad that this role of a “feeling” struck you as odd. I’m hoping to write more about this in future posts. There are two ways people usually relate reason to emotions. The first is that reason has to whip them into shape and always be keeping an eye on them. A reasonable person, therefore, would always be questioning, “Am I laughing too much? Am I feeling the right amount of anger? Am I crying too much?”

      While I think that is true of the reasonable person, the virtuous person has gone a step beyond. When someone is truly virtuous, they feel the right amount of humor, the right amount of anger, the right amount of sorrow without having to think about it. Why? Because reason’s goal should be to train the emotions. Reason has to micromanage at first, but the emotions should eventually be “reasonable”, having reason in themselves. So the one who has integrity and the moral virtues shouldn’t have to consciously press their emotions into service.

      What lies at the base of my post is this idea that emotions–feelings–are a participation in reason. Wonder is the feeling when the body and soul together react correctly to something wonderful. Because they are acting together and correctly, this wonder is virtuous and a participation in reason; although reason is not consulted directly, it is working indirectly through the training it provided to the emotions earlier.

      I hope that makes sense. 🙂 I love this stuff.


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